Who buys mainstream magazines these days? Most of them are so in thrall to the demands of the marketing, ad and finance departments that by the time the original vision of the editorial and art department reaches the newsstand it’s barely recognisable. So where do we print junkies turn for the kind of innovation and mould-breaking bravery we still look for in magazines? To independent magazines, of course.
Against all the odds, the independent magazine sector is thriving. The growing popularity and scale of biennale independent publishing fair Colophon and a look at the shelves of the Institute of Contemporary Arts or the Tate bookshops show a market in rude health, and one that’s influencing some segments of mainstream publishing, despite the constraints.
Colophon curator and MagCulture author Jeremy Leslie says, ‘Men’s magazines in particular have moved away from garish colours, increased nipple counts and multiple entry points to the more thoughtful, analytical style evident in titles like Monocle, Esquire and Intelligent Life.’
Leslie believes that titles like Dutch independent Fantastic Man are forging the way in shaping the content and style of such magazines. ‘Creative director Jop Van Bennekom and editor Gert Jonkers learnt the ropes on titles like Re and (gay men’s magazine) Butt, then came up with the idea for a men’s magazine for the market beyond the young traditional one, one that celebrates manhood through a balance of arrogance and a subtle, tongue-in-cheek sense of humour,’ he explains. ‘The men’s market in the wider sense is looking at it closely.’
Micha Weidmann, creative director of Design Science Office, adds, ‘Fantastic Man has its own editorial voice and style. Its relaxed and honest editorial feel is reflected in the photography, typography and even the paper choices. It has dynamic ideas and humour without losing out on style and luxury. It’s found its own way of understanding and influencing its readers, a real indie.’
Another indie title that might point a new direction for mainstream titles is German biennial magazine Sepp, a men’s title specialising in fashion and football. Founder Markus Ebner, who produces it with co-editor Godfrey Deeny and creative director Mirko Borsche, says, ‘Sepp is a new type of magazine which attracts a very small, but highly targeted reader. For advertisers, such niche titles can offer small, but attractive audiences with clear demographics.’
Such specialisation is undoubtedly a way forward, but does Sepp’s infrequency mean lack of consistency? Not at all, says Borsche. ‘Every time we rebrush our concept of visual design and photography, without losing our identity,’ he says.’ And the infrequency enables the team to work on other experimental and cutting-edge projects – ‘like Gomma Records, Die Zeit newspaper and magazine, Thalia Theater and Sonar collective. The things we try out there are visualised in Sepp as a kind of compendium,’ Borsche adds.
And on the annual fashion magazine Rubbish, design consultancy Harriman Steel sees the infrequency of the publication as a positive factor. ‘The publication is visited and revisited over a period of six months until we feel it is right. This said, spontaneity is key; we try not to be too precious over layouts. The immediacy of design gives Rubbish its personality. On top of this, the extended time frames allow us to create our own headline fonts from paper, fabric and other random materials,’ says creative director Nick Steel.
Time to play around with materials, stock, production processes and font creation can also influence the mainstream titles, says Leslie.
‘Elle and Wallpaper create special covers for subscribers and commission artists to create different covers, making space for esoteric qualities that add visual smartness. It’s essentially about making your magazine more printy and using new developments and techniques. Making intelligent decisions about the look of a magazine adds value to it as an object,’ he says.
As Leslie points out, websites do this all the time, quickly exploiting innovations, and magazines should follow suit if they want to survive.
So how can mainstream magazines best exploit the freedom of independents? Steel says, ‘Magazines like Rubbish should inspire other designers to create, not copy. Not to be so precious. Live a little, cut loose and enjoy yourselves. Don’t be scared, there are no right and wrongs, if you like it and it makes you happy, that’s what matters.’
Weidmann adds, ‘If mainstream publishers, editors and designers are bold enough, they too can find ways to produce more dynamic covers and pages, such as the graphic front pages of The Independent a few years ago or the picture spread in The Guardian. Mainstream titles just need to take advantage of their full potential.’ And perhaps have less input from the marketing department and more from the art department.
As Alex Wright of art title Le Gun says, ‘Creating Le Gun is never as contrived as attempting to remain at the forefront of some sort of vista. We edit as a group and begin by selecting what we like, so initially it’s a subjective process. This sounds self-indulgent, but generally readers’ interests and desires aren’t on our minds, we tend to do as we see fit and hope that people like it.’